by Lena Ng
There is nothing so joyous—as the snow melts away, and the early green buds burst from the branches, and the sun grows stronger and brighter, and the winter’s chill departs from your bones, and the vibrant colours of Easter flowers and emerald grass begin to paint the land—as a heavy, hearty, welcome-to-a-new-spring breakfast. So thought Mole as he stretched and yawned, and stretched and yawned again, belly up under a blue-and-white quilt, while the perfume of spring seeped into his cozy, underground abode.
Soon the smell of sputtering bacon and button mushrooms, reheated tinned beans, roasting tomatoes, fried potatoes, and fresh coffee, mingled and danced and filled the air in his kitchen. So many lovely smells, delicious smells, that it didn’t take long before a rap sounded at his front door.
Mole set down two big plates of blue earthenware on his round wooden table. “Door’s open,” he called out. A pointed, curious nose found its way through the front door and down the underground hallway to the kitchen. The whiskers on this snout twitched and shiny nostrils flared with all the smelling of the food cooking on the speckled blue, pot-bellied stove.
“Ratty,” said Mole, scooping a generous helping of baked beans onto each plate, “I was hoping you would join me. Welcome, welcome spring!”
“Glorious spring,” agreed Rat. “And even better with a full stomach.” He helped with pouring the coffee and getting out the knives and forks. The past winter had seemed especially long and especially cold, and although his house on the river bank was lined with mud to keep out the draft, there was nothing like a good dose of sunlight after the dismal grey. And to see the river thawing from slow and sluggish to leaping and alive delighted Rat every year. “I was on the way back from gathering supplies—for fishing and the like, talking lure-craft and river lore and that sort of thing—when those marvellous smells told me you were awake.” Animals in general know it isn’t proper form to disturb their hibernating kinsmen, just as you yourself would not appreciate being woken in the middle of the night from a deep, dreamless sleep. Instead there were ways to find out who was up-and-about: the grapevine of gossipy rabbits and informative hedgehogs; the sounds of spring-cleaning; run-ins at the market for seeds and herbs.
The tucking in was made even more delicious after the winter’s fast. The catch-up of news would be saved for after the sipping and slurping and crunching and savouring. At last, with his stomach stretching his plaid pyjamas to the table, Mole sat back with a contented sigh. “More coffee, Ratty?”
Rat leaned over his own stuffed stomach to inch his mug closer to the coffee pot. His belly was comfortably full and another cup of coffee would fill in all the small gaps.
Mole halted mid-pour as a low buzz filled the room. The buzz rattled the dishes on the table and stacked on the shelves. The sound faded and Mole started to pour again.
Buuuuzzzz. There it was again. It could be a buzz saw or a lawnmower or a low-flying two seater aircraft…
“Oh, no,” said Rat as his nose twitched. He stared up at the packed-earth ceiling. “It can’t be.”
“Can’t be what?” asked Mole.
“That Toad, Toad of Toad Hall, Toad of Complete and Utter Foolishness. What silly thing is he up to now?”
Despite his heavy stomach, Rat was quickly away from the table and through the underground hallway to the front door. Mole struggled to catch up.
“How do you know it’s Toad?” Mole panted.
“Because anything strange or new or bizarre—it can only be him.”
Rat flung the door open and they both squinted against the bright spring light as they made their way into the awakening field. The propeller’s buzz started to grow louder as it swooped overhead. It was a snub-nosed, two-seater plane, painted a fire-hydrant red.
Mole’s normally small black eyes grew wide on his sleek, ebony-furred face. Behind the pilot’s goggles and wrapped with a red scarf waving in the wind was definitely Toad. Attached to the plane’s back rudder was an enormous flapping banner reading:
TOAD’S GRAND BIRTHDAY EXTRAVAGANZA. TOMORROW 4 PM TOAD HALL.
Mole jumped up and down and waved his small paws. “Toad, over here, look down,” he called out.
“Don’t encourage him,” said Rat as the plane buzzed out of sight. “Because of his jailbreak, he’s still a wanted toad. He’s supposed to be laying low. Instead he’s inviting all of the wild wood to his party. No, this won’t do. We’d better get Badger.”
After the washing up and putting away the crockery, Mole changed into his hiking togs while Rat amassed the necessary supplies for a journey into the wild wood. There was no time to gather the prerequisite plants to carry in their pocket or to perform the safety rituals but they had their walking sticks which would likely serve them well if they met up with trouble.
The bright sunlight soon grew hidden by the trees as Mole and Rat made their way through the dense forest. The brush and crackle of beech leaves underfoot and the snap of small twigs and branches caused suspicious eyes to peer out at them through small holes in the tree trunks. At the sight of the sturdy walking sticks and two companions marching with purpose, these mistrustful eyes disappeared right back into their hideaways.
The friends trudged on in watchful silence until at last they saw the iron nameplate of Mr. Badger.
* * *
“Yes, I saw the banner,” Badger said gruffly as they settled into their armchairs, with steaming cups of tea and small plates of sandwiches resting on the side tables to revive them. “The whole wood saw it, with the ruckus his plane was making. I’m surprised he’s still flying it; I thought it was repossessed. Well, we’d better be off since I’m the only one who can talk any sense into him.”
Badger led them back through the wild wood, down the hidden pathways and clandestine trails, cautious yet confident as always. He recited the essential passwords and gestured the required signals and soon they emerged from the dappled light of the dense forest into the open meadow leading to Toad Hall.
After some time trekking through bluebells and brambles, the ivy-covered stone facade of Toad Hall came into view. The snub-nosed plane sat in front of the west wing of the house, its owner waving as the companions drew closer.
“My dear, dear friends,” Toad said, putting away the cloth after polishing the side of the red plane to a gleam. “I take it you’ve seen my invitation to my little soirée.” With his goggles pushed back on his broad head and his pilot’s uniform of a brown suede flying jacket with a shearling collar, red scarf tied nattily around his neck, Toad was the picture of dashing. “Thank-you, thank-you for helping me prepare for my birthday party. It will be the biggest, grandest party in existence. A special day where I would like to treat all of my friends. All to commemorate, well… me. I’m turning four.” Four may seem young but it was a ripe, respectable age for any toad.
Mole examined the underside of the plane closely, mainly because his eyesight was poor, and he was very round and small and couldn’t look much higher. Rat clambered up into the passenger side and leaned back into the leather seat. Although he was dedicated to his river, Rat decided he would write his next poem about flying.
Badger’s stern look through his round spectacles didn’t seem to damper Toad’s enthusiasm. The grey whiskers on his cheeks quivered. “Don’t let this party run wild, Toad. By not controlling the guest list, you don’t know who will turn up. Remember the time your house was overrun with stoats and weasels.”
“Hee, hee,” Toad laughed. “Wasn’t it a magnificent time running them off? Stoats and weasels had no defense against my mighty cudgel. A whoop and a sound licking and off they ran.” A self-satisfied smile crossed his homely face. “But with the party, it’s too late. I’ve invited everyone and I’ve spared no expense. There’s champagne in the icebox, canapes and caviar, and gifts to take home. Now help me wrap the party favours.”
Toad led them through the arched doorway of Toad Hall, down the portrait gallery of Toads Past to the grand dining room. In a gigantic mound on the polished herringbone floor were treats and enjoyments of every shape and size. There were beautifully painted books whose illustrations popped up from the page. When a tab was pulled, the cut-out horses with flowing painted manes would lope around a carousel or a lion would leap at the paper cage bars or a lark would open its beak and sing. There were boxes of striped sugar candy cubes which would fizz and snap in your mouth when you ate them. There were lavender recorders and pink whistles. There were foil pinwheels and contraptions which blew bubbles and yoyos and tin cars which raced around the room with the turning of a metal key. Pages could be written on the variety of enchantments lying on Toad’s floor. It was all very delightful. It also looked like a lot of work to wrap them.
Before the grumbling could start, Toad held open his arms. “Please, my dear friends, I need your help. You’re right, Badger, this party will get out of hand without your assistance. But it’s my birthday and all I want to do is make others as happy as I am.”
Well, no one could say no to that so Badger, Rat, and Mole spent the rest of the day and into the evening wrapping gifts while Toad sang rousing wild wood songs to keep their spirits going as he hung up the streamers and balloons.
* * *
The next day, the group had barely set upon their lavish breakfast—since, despite his faults, Toad was an excellent host and never did things by halves—before the doorbell began to chime. Over the morning, in streamed a parade of a musicians, caterers in liveried uniform, jugglers in bright costume, somersaulting clowns sporting fuzzy wigs, twirling ballerinas, and other entertainers.
A large, striped canopy with a stage for speeches was set up in Toad’s back acreage. There were three tables for the food and drink. A small, fenced in area held the petting zoo with miniature ponies and pygmy goats. Another large table held the cheerfully-wrapped gifts for the guests. In the back, much to Badger’s chagrin, was an enormous pile of fireworks.
“How much did all this cost?” Mole asked with mouth dropped open as he surveyed the party landscape. Toad Hall was set on five acres of green, fertile land with plenty of room for all of the celebration’s amusements.
“Never mind,” said Toad, proudly wearing his bespoke tailored birthday outfit. It was an orange suit with fashionably-thin lapels with a patch of the Toad Hall coat of arms sewn on the front, accompanied by a striped blue-and-orange silk bow tie. He also sported a splendid hat which could have put any royal hat to shame. “You only turn four once.”
With all the coordinating and setting up—the tiered cake was to go here and the chocolate fountain would go there and the pyramid of champagne glasses were to be arranged over there—and Toad practicing his speech and songs, with some fine-tuning and editing by accomplished poet Rat, the time hurried by and soon it was four o’clock.
“Well, I’m off,” said Badger, as the first guests, a dozen or so of rabbits, started to hop in. “Happy returns, dear Toad.”
“You’re not staying for the party?”
Badger packed his day bag with a few edibles for the road. “You know how much I hate society and parties. Peace and quiet is all I care for. But I promise to return tomorrow to help you with the cleaning up.”
“We’ll keep him out of trouble,” said Rat. Mole nodded enthusiastically with a mouth full of pistachio pudding.
* * *
Rat and Mole had to agree. It was the grandest party in existence. The fireflies gave a twinkling, flirtatious light. The ballerinas pirouetted and the jugglers juggled and the edibles were eaten and the drinkables quaffed. Toad’s larger-than-life presence lorded over everything.
And the noise! No polite party conversation here. Instead the happy cacophony of live music and snippets of carousing songs and excited chatter and laughter. Even Toad’s terrible jokes seemed to be immensely funny, and it was his own booming laughter that was the loudest at the telling. Everyone admired Toad’s flourishing hat and wished him happy returns, and the champagne flowed like the river.
A few weasels and stoats appeared, hats in hands, quite humbled by their previous defeat. Toad bore them no animosity since they sincerely wished him longevity and best wishes, and they joked a bit about their past scuffles and Toad’s stalwart fighting. The Chief Weasel pledged his best behaviour and unwavering loyalty and brought an enormous wicker basket filled with aged cheeses, candied fruit, crystalized crickets and other such amphibian delicacies as a gift from them all.
Finally, a drum-roll sounded and a hush fell upon the celebrants. Toad ascended onto the stage. He stood for a few moments, soaking in the attention. “My dear, wonderful, considerate, kind—”
This went on for several minutes until all the appropriate adjectives were exhausted.
“—loyal, generous, loving friends,” Toad began. “Thank-you for sharing my special day.”
A cheer arose from the crowds.
Toad cleared his throat and waited for silence. “I suppose you are all wondering about the origins of Toad.” After a pregnant pause, “It all began in the mid-thirteenth century, when my great ancestor, Toad de Bonaparte, was still a tadpole wriggling in a fish pond deep in the heart of France…” He regaled the crowd with the history of Toad and somehow managed to make it all the way to the beginning of the fifteenth century before someone yelled—
Which Toad didn’t seem to mind since who could blame anyone for wanting to get to the good part. He changed his stance, breathed deeply with his diaphragm, and poured forth a self-composed song, sung mainly in key.
Just as Toad reached the highest note of his song, the stage began to rumble. Across the field sounded the pitter-patter of an army of little feet. Little feet running, little feet jumping, little feet racing down the hillside and over the green grass and heading directly towards Toad Hall. Hundreds of little feet belonging to a horde of…
Lemmings, lemmings everywhere, pudgy brown fur balls from all over the countryside. They guzzled all the champagne. They cannonballed into the chocolate fountain, spraying founts of chocolate. They chittered all at once in their high-pitched voices so that no one could hear the sound of their own thoughts. They razed through the birthday cake and vacuumed up the canapes and hors d’oeuvres.
The party guests scattered. The miniature ponies and pygmy goats jumped the fence and ran off, booting lemmings left and right. Toad went into a manic panic of racing here and there but wasn’t able to accomplish much of anything. The stoats and weasels sprang up at once and managed to gather a few of the lemmings under their arms but the sheer numbers overwhelmed them.
A piercing whistle whizzed through the lemming crowd. It ended in an explosion of heat, light, and colour. A stream of fireworks skyrocketed through the mass of Rodentia. A ringing bang and the lemmings were tossed about and tumbling.
Toad ran to the back where the fireworks were kept. There stood Badger, carefully setting off the missiles, his aim honed by his previous years in the military. “Badger, Badger, how did you know to return?” asked Toad, gasping.
“The lemmings had stormed the wild wood and I knew they would cause chaos,” Badger replied, methodically aiming a Cherry Blaster and setting it alight. The lemmings scattered and scampered, run off by the screaming streams of swirling colour. A crazed excitement filled Toad and he began to set off the fireworks willy-nilly.
“Be careful,” shouted Badger, “or you’ll burn Toad Hall to the ground.”
Caution or foresight were never parts of Toad’s character, and he jumped onto the biggest firework in his arsenal.
“Get off of there!” Badger said.
But it was too late and Toad had set off the biggest firework while sitting right on it. Perched backwards, Toad jockeyed the Colossal Chrysanthemum as the firework shot into the sky. The big rocket exploded, ejecting Toad into the starry stratosphere in a burst of fiery confetti. Rat and Mole watched in open-mouthed, horrified awe as they saw a Toad-shaped figure silhouetted against the moon’s bright face, one arm waving a massive hat.
But gravity gives no exception and toads who go up, must also come down. They heard a mighty thud and saw an eruption of coloured wrapping paper where Toad had landed.
Rat, Mole, and Badger ran to the landing spot. There they found Toad collapsed under a pile of brightly-wrapped presents.
“Toad, oh Toad,” said Mole, hands clasped together and with tears streaming from his liquid-black eyes. “Please tell us you’re all right.”
Toad opened one eye and then the other, looking up at three furrowed expressions. Face blackened from gunpowder, his belly started shaking from laughter. “Best birthday ever,” Toad exclaimed, miraculously without the loss of a single tooth. “Let’s do it again next year.”
* * *
Originally published in Non Binary Review Issue 18: The Wind in the Willows, Zoetic Press
About the Author
Lena Ng is from Toronto, Ontario. She has short stories in over two dozen publications including Amazing Stories. Her 2019 current and forthcoming publications include Hinnom, The Literary Hatchet, We Shall Be Monsters, Colp, Beer-Battered Shrimp, The Little Book of Fairy Tales, Mortal Realm, and Mother Ghost’s Grim. “Under an Autumn Moon” is her short story collection. She is currently seeking a publisher for her novel, Darkness Beckons, a Gothic romance.